Author and Son Describe Difficulty of Iraq Service
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Thousands of American families live every day with the anxiety of having a son or daughter, a husband or wife at war overseas. They worry that the person they know may be harmed, and they worry about how that person they know may be changed by conditions and challenges that they cannot know, much less share. Frederick Busch is a novelist; his son, Benjamin, is a US Marine and a professional actor who's completed two tours in Iraq. Frederick Busch writes about his experiences and anxieties in this month's Harper's Magazine. He joins us from the studios of WAER in Syracuse, New York.
Frederick Busch, thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. FREDERICK BUSCH (Father of Marine): I'm happy to be with you.
SIMON: And his son, Benjamin Busch, joins us in our studios.
Benjamin Busch, thank you very much for being with us.
Mr. BENJAMIN BUSCH (US Marine): Thank you for having me.
SIMON: And let me turn to you first, Benjamin Busch. What made you become a Marine?
Mr. B. BUSCH: I'd like to say destiny but I think it probably has more to do with childhood ideas about adventure and about duty, and I've left the Marine Corps four times and I keep coming right back.
SIMON: You felt a sense of purpose with other people going.
Mr. B. BUSCH: I did. You know, there's so many reasons to join in this global war on terrorism which we are now kind of inextricably involved. But mine was I think a little more direct, less political, and was simply that Marines were there and I went to get them back. I serve the Marines for the Marines.
SIMON: Frederick Busch, you proud your son became a Marine?
Mr. F. BUSCH: Absolutely proud. I think he's a hero.
SIMON: Help us understand what it's like to be a parent and, you know, you see all these other faces on TV and hear all these other voices on radio, but not your son.
Mr. F. BUSCH: I almost watched no television reports because of Ben's final injunction to us: Don't watch the news. We lived in fear 24 hours a day.
SIMON: I gather you, Benjamin Busch--you and your father have been on the phone when you essentially say, `I gotta go; there are shots behind me'?
Mr. B. BUSCH: Yeah, actually. Of all the things you could say, that everything's going fine and then suddenly there's rockets--explosions on the...
Mr. B. BUSCH: ...phone lines. `Gotta go.' And then, of course, you worry about, `Oh, now what are they gonna think?'
Mr. F. BUSCH: And then he got back on the phone hours later and filled me in on what had happened, and said, `Don't tell Mom.' He's the major so I obey him. And I...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. F. BUSCH: ...I spent a long week or 10 days not telling Mom.
Mr. B. BUSCH: You know, imagination combined with anxiety is the stuff of nightmares, and I think made worse by my father, who...
SIMON: He's a novelist, after all, who's got a good imagination.
Mr. B. BUSCH: Yeah, you know, who makes fiction a focus of his mind, you know, so if you can imagine all those things combining at the wrong time.
SIMON: Well, what have you been doing in Iraq? Can you tell us?
Mr. B. BUSCH: My first tour I was the commanding officer of a light-armor reconnaissance company, and their job essentially is, you know, the last idea of calvary. And that is to find and then destroy, and we went looking for a conventional army that was supposed to be, you know, immense and waiting for us, and what we found is we drove into cities like Al Kut were thousands of uniforms lying alongside the road. These armies had dissolved back into the city and had taken on a new face as civilians. What we found was almost worse than fighting, was that tension over waiting to fight, and the fight simply never came. There we were. Families, of course, were being told that we'll be retrograding. We had 67 different changes in our departure date. That's hard--very hard on families because they get their minds fixed on a certain day that they have to wait to.
SIMON: Frederick Busch, do you mind talking about what these periods have felt like when you thought your son was coming home on a date certain and then it gets extended?
Mr. F. BUSCH: We didn't know all those dates that he knew. And I think in part he tried to help preserve our sanity. There were times when I stopped believing that he would come home. We didn't permit ourselves, Judy and I, to say that and to check with each other every morning: `Do you believe he's alive?' We dealt with the realities as reported by Tracy, who is Ben's wife. `Ben called last night' or, `Ben called the day before yesterday.' And we simply used those facts as ways of building what I have called a superstructure of belief, a kind of scaffolding that, in spite of our fears, at least gave us a certain assurance that he was alive as of such and such a date.
Mr. B. BUSCH: In my first tour, I didn't have as clear a sense for it as I did in my second, as a father finally. You raise a child for 18 or 20 years, and your job is to protect them. That's your job. And when they go to war, you can't. I had the same thought my father did. You know, `Today's the day I'm not coming back.' I'd look at my young Marines and I'd hope it wasn't them. And although you hear numbers going up--you know, we finally crossed the 2,000 service members killed in Iraq, it began to feel in the news like it was a stock. You know, 2,000 families that are destroyed, and we're probably getting close to 15,000 wounded. Those are numbers which continue; you know, the stock doesn't go down.
SIMON: Frederick Busch, could you write when your son was deployed in Iraq?
Mr. F. BUSCH: I wrote. The job of a writer is to create structure and to find right language so as to be able to tell what he or she thinks is the truth. And the search for right language and the invention of structure help to give the writer himself a sense of being held together as his structure holds together the inchoate experiences he's trying to write about. And I do not pray. I am not an observer of any organized faith. And I think the closest I was able to come to prayer was to write this essay as a way, if you will, of bringing Ben home.
SIMON: There's something that's missing from the article which I'd like to ask you about. What was the homecoming like?
Mr. B. BUSCH: I was really lucky in that I came back on my daughter's first birthday, and I saw her crawling for the first time with glee and hiding behind her mother's legs and peeking at me and she didn't know who I was, but she accepted that I was important enough for her to notice, and I got to just sit in the grass with her for a little while...
Mr. B. BUSCH: ...and that was all I needed. It was a very tough tour, and I was very tired. And I kind of just wanted quiet.
Mr. F. BUSCH: All along, Judy and I had--what we each wanted was to see him holding his baby. After that you could send us to Iraq. And when we got to his house, we did see that. And obviously, we were beyond speech and beyond language.
SIMON: I can't thank you both enough.
Mr. B. BUSCH: Well, I think right now there's 150,000 families who are worried, and I thank you for kind of allowing everyone to admit they're worried.
Mr. F. BUSCH: Thank you, Scott. Bye, Ben.
Mr. B. BUSCH: Thanks. Bye, Dad.
SIMON: Frederick Busch's latest novel, "North", is available now.
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